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Wartime Dissolution and Revival of the Japanese Language Schools in Hawai'i: Persistence of Ethnic Culture

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 1, Number 2, June 1998
pp. 121-151 | 10.1353/jaas.1998.0022

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Journal of Asian American Studies 1.2 (1998) 121-151


The history of Japanese language schools in Hawai'i during World War II has been little examined perhaps because the schools were closed during the war. Even the voluminous Hawaii nihongo gakkou kyouiku shi (History of the Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii) by the Hawaii Kyouiku Kai (Hawaii Japanese Education Association) has no chapter on the period. During the war, most Japanese language schools were forced, as "un-American" institutions, not only to close but also to dissolve and liquidate themselves. Many with large assets donated those proceeds to charitable or educational institutions or to the City and County of Honolulu.

Even the postwar history of Japanese language schools has not been analyzed in a definitive way. The language schools were revived in 1947 as part of a Japanese cultural revival, much to the dismay of those who had tried to eliminate them permanently. The issei community worked hard to revive them. Interestingly, even nisei and non-Japanese groups by-and-large supported their revival. By this time, the foreign language schools were no longer the target of political debate. They grew and reached a peak in 1965. The postwar Japanese language schools were, of course, much different from the ones in the prewar period in the quality of students, textbooks, teaching methods, and subjects, but their revival shows the issei's continuous efforts to maintain their leadership, ethnic identity, and traditional Japanese values and institutions, while adapting themselves to the new conditions in Hawai'i.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the history of the Japanese language schools during and after World War II in Hawai'i. I will not only examine the wartime power dynamics around the dissolution of the Japanese language schools, but also analyze their postwar revival and shift and continuity from the prewar era. How were they forced to dissolve? How did they respond to the pressure? Why did the wartime campaign to eliminate them permanently, which seemed to have succeeded, fail in the end? What did their revival mean for postwar race relations in Hawai'i? To understand better the Japanese perspectives, I have used letters, personal interviews, records of Japanese morale activities, language-school publications, and vernacular newspapers.

The Mobilization of Nisei Civic Leaders to Control the Japanese Community

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese in Hawai'i, especially issei, were put on the spot. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) quickly arrested and interned 1,450 Japanese, including almost all the Buddhist and Shinto priests and Japanese language-school officials, 200 Japanese consular agents, many commercial fishermen, and 468 "pro-Japanese" kibei. Though the scale of internment was limited (less than 0.9 percent of the Japanese population), its impact on the Japanese community was much greater than the numbers indicate. Since the arrested issei were leaders of the community, without their guidance, all the Japanese language schools, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines ceased to function. As a result, the Japanese community lost its centers of religious life, social life, and information exchange. Moreover, following the declaration of martial law on December 7, 1941, various restrictions were placed on the alien Japanese. Among these were the prohibition of public use of the Japanese language and alien group gatherings of over ten people, which would be abolished only after the lifting of martial law on October 24, 1944. Because most issei spoke Japanese, those restrictions devastated them, depriving them of their leadership in the community and authority at home.

Let us first examine the power dynamics that pressed the Japanese to close and liquidate their cherished language schools. The Japanese comprised the largest group (37.2 percent) of Hawaii's population in 1940, followed by the Caucasian population at 24.5 percent, Hawaiian 15.2 percent, Filipino 12.4 percent, Chinese 8.7 percent, and others 3.8 percent. Such a large Japanese population, including 23.5 percent of rather unassimilated issei, was cause for anxiety as international tension mounted between the U.S. and Japan. In particular, the 168 Japanese language schools, with an enrollment of 37,762 students (84.3 percent of all school-age nisei...

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